The death of Fidel Castro cannot but evoke mixed feelings, especially in India. To many in this country, Cuba’s revolutionary leader was a friend and a hero. He was a shining star in Jawaharlal Nehru’s pet international project, the Non-Aligned Movement, and later developed a warm relationship with Indira Gandhi: Who can forget the tears he shed on her death? Castro’s running rhetorical battle with the United States won him many admirers, especially in the 1970s and 80s, when the Indo-American relationship was often disputatious. Even if you cared nothing for geopolitics, there seemed something quixotically commendable about the leader of a small, poor nation standing up to a superpower — despite several attempts on his life by the said superpower. Add to that his natural charisma, and shrewd management of his image as a Third World Robin Hood, and it’s easy to understand why Indians of a certain age (and of all political persuasions) will mourn his passing.
But if Castro was a hero to many Indians, the legacy he leaves his own people is far from laudable. It is undoubtedly true that he had saved his countrymen from a brutal oppressor, Fulgencio Batista. It wasn’t long, however, before the revolutionary had turned repressor in his own right, inflicting the worst ideas of Communism, from collective farming to suppression of thought, on his free-spirited people. If Batista kept his people poor, then Castro made sure they could never escape poverty — or Cuba. Apologists argued that his rule had delivered Cubans free education and healthcare, as if these were some special favours he had bestowed. This didn’t explain why Cubans continued to brave treacherous waters in order to flee to the US, where the education and healthcare is often both expensive and inferior.
As so often the case with revolutions, Castro’s morphed into a military junta, then into a family business. The process was completed in 2006, when he handed the reins to his brother Raul, long the ruthless enforcer of his will upon the people. The chance to bring in a new generation of leadership, to make way for real change, was deliberately spurned. It was also the last chance for Castro to rescue his legacy.
Fidel Castro will be mourned in India, and in much of what was impolitely known as the Third World. But history will judge him, not by how many hearts he won abroad, but by how many dreams he broke at home.